The recent demolition of a home in Little Rock’s Hillcrest neighborhood has prompted community leaders and historic preservationists to again consider regulating development in the neighborhood.
In the mid-1990s, an effort to formally designate Hillcrest a historic neighborhood under guidelines established by state law was defeated. Some residents objected to restrictions that would be imposed.
However, during the last few months, houses on Ridgeway and I Streets have been purchased and torn down (or slated for demolition) to make room for new structures. Some neighbors believe the character of Hillcrest faces an immediate threat.
“Something needs to be done,” said Tony Woodell, president of the Hillcrest Residents Association. “We promised the city that we will explore options based on the situation on I Street. We want to ensure the historic, eclectic flavor of our neighborhood, and we do not want teardowns of good-quality, existing homes.”
Timothy and Annette Quillin on Nov. 29 purchased the home at 476 Ridgeway that subsequently was torn down. They say they understand and share their neighbors’ concerns about preserving Hillcrest’s character.
“We had the property looked at, and it was not in good shape,” Annette said, in explaining why they decided to demolish the original home. “But we want everyone to be reassured that we will build something that fits with the neighborhood. We’re not going to put up something like what is going up out west.”
In the case of 4400 I St., the Times already has reported on the dispute between developers and residents over plans to build four houses on a one-acre lot where a 90-year-old home currently stands. The developers, Cathy and Gary Pursell, said that restoration of the house was not feasible, because it would cost more than the total value of the property, and they have promised that the new homes will not look out of place in the neighborhood.
Hillcrest mostly consists of homes built in the first half of the 20th century, and some design elements make the area distinctive. The neighborhood is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but that designation does not affect the ability of property owners to destroy or modify the existing buildings.
Under existing law, there are two ways Hillcrest could regulate future development. The neighborhood could adopt a design overlay district (like the River Market), but that deals mostly with zoning and land use. Another option would be to create a local ordinance historic district (like the MacArthur Park Historic District), which is concerned with the preservation of structures and their exteriors.
But that is exactly what provoked so much resistance when it was proposed about a decade ago. Some residents objected to the idea that renovations, additions, or other exterior changes to their homes would be subject to the approval of a board or commission.
“The residents who were not supportive of the local ordinance district did not like the idea of having that kind of additional review and control of their property,” said Tony Bozynski, Little Rock’s director of planning and development.
With that in mind, some historic preservationists are floating a third alternative that they describe as a compromise. Hillcrest could become a conservation district, with a commission that would only have oversight authority over proposed demolitions and the size of new structures.
“Some people call it ‘historic district lite,’ ” said Jim Metzger, a research economist and president of HISTECON Associates, who lives and works in Hillcrest.
In response to another concern related to teardowns themselves, Metzger said that a conservation district can apply mass-to-area ratios to ensure that “you can’t build a McMansion on a little bungalow lot.” This phenomenon, where older houses on small lots are replaced with larger homes that envelop the property and interrupt a consistency of style, has occurred with some frequency in the Heights neighborhood. Some Hillcrest residents want to prevent it from happening where they live.
By steering clear of strict regulations on exterior appearance, the conservation district could neutralize many of the arguments used to defeat the earlier preservationist effort. Almost everyone in favor of creating the historic district who talked with the Times mentioned that much of the opposition was under the mistaken impression that residents would need a commission’s approval for things as small as paint color.
“People said, ‘I will not have them tell me what color I can paint my house,’ ” Bozynski said. “But that was not the case. It is possible that there was a misunderstanding, and they were taking a position based on misinformation.”
While a conservation district might satisfy the preservationists and the property rights defenders, Bozynski says that new state legislation is necessary to make it an option. Metzger thinks such a law would be easy to pass.
“We already have much harder legislation,” Metzger said, referring to the existing historic district regulations. “Compared to that, the conservation district is pretty moderate.”
Woodell says he personally favors the conservation district idea, but he doesn’t know what the Hillcrest Residents Association will decide to support.
“I don’t want to alarm people who think we are going down the path to be too restrictive,” Woodell said. “But I also want to say we are doing something.”
At the very least, he promises that his organization will have established a clear direction on the subject by this time next year.
“The issue is making sure we maintain the existing quality housing stock, while at the same time, where houses have to come down, getting quality back on lots to conform to the neighborhood, instead of a big box,” Woodell added.
Metzger points out that guidelines for development already exist in West Little Rock, where exclusive neighborhoods such as Chenal Valley insist on standards for new homes. He also says that studies indicate property values increase in residential historic districts.
“No one will ever build a Hillcrest again,” Metzger said. “It was built during a unique period in time, and it can’t be replicated in the future. We should protect the past for future families to enjoy.”
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